Trailblazing for Better Health
In 20 years, Kat Lacy has grown Better Life Natural Pet Foods from its origins in the back of a pickup truck to an admirable model of health-focused pet retail.
When Kat Lacy started her business in Las Cruces, N.M., just over 20 years ago, she was a pioneer in a region where natural pet foods weren’t even on the radar. Now, Better Life Natural Pet Foods’ two locations have become fixtures in the community, helping to change the way people think about their pets and what they feed them.
Like many independent pet retailers, Lacy’s story starts with her love for her own pets. She had several dogs that she had trained and begun to show, but they suffered from skin and hair-loss problems that no number of trips to the vet could seem to cure.
“When I took them to the vet, it would just be prescriptions and antibiotics, or toxic chemical dips at the time,” Lacy says. “Then I got pregnant with my daughter, and I was looking at what I ate all of a sudden, and it dawned on me that maybe it’s what my pets are eating.”
Investigating the ingredient panels on the food she had been giving her dogs was an eye-opening experience that inspired her to go in search of healthier options.
“It was an awakening,” she says. “I realized I’d just been feeding them basically paper all those years.”
Lacy’s research eventually led her to Solid Gold’s holistic pet foods. But the closest place she could find the brand was in Houston—almost 800 miles away.
Determined to take better care of her pets with a more nutritious diet, she made the trip across Texas and brought back a pickup truck full of the food. She saw rapid improvement in her dogs’ health, especially in their skin and coats, and started getting some of her friends and neighbors into feeding their pets Solid Gold as well.
However, repeating the drive to Houston to resupply wasn’t a sustainable model in the long term, so Lacy took the only route she could find to get the food into Las Cruces directly—she became an independent distributor. From there, the business snowballed as she picked up several natural pet food lines from other companies and began delivering the products to people in her area. As demand spread to more people over a wider area within the next few years, Lacy decided to open a brick-and-mortar location and transition from distributor to retailer.
In order to grow the business, Lacy had to face a major obstacle in the simple lack of awareness of natural pet food brands in the region.
“Back when we started, we distributed through New Mexico and west Texas, and nobody carried this food,” Lacy says. “People looked at us like, ‘What do you do exactly?’”
The now-common perspective that pets are part of the family was also yet to emerge when she first began selling better-quality pet foods.
“We had this barrier that we had to change the way people felt about their pets,” Lacy says. “Back then, it was much more difficult. People assumed dogs were disposable, and that feeding them a higher quality food didn’t matter.”
Two decades later, the natural-focused segment of the pet industry has exploded, a process that has had its pros and cons for Better Life Natural Pet Foods. Consumer demand has grown exponentially, giving Lacy’s business a much larger customer base, but competition from other channels now poses a much more significant challenge. Whereas specialty brands used to be the sole source for natural diets, mass market brands have picked up on the label’s popularity, a shift Lacy says hasn’t been all positive.
“It’s very highly competitive because I believe the old-school companies with poor or mediocre ingredients started to feel the hurt,” Lacy says. “They’re all coming up with natural versions, and the customer doesn’t see the difference.”
With the switch to viewing pets as beloved family members, Lacy no longer has to do as much convincing that higher quality foods are better for pets. Now the continued success of her business depends in large part on differentiating the foods she carries from the often-cheaper mass brands with the same buzzwords like grain-free and natural on the packaging.
“Our customers say, ‘I could get that grain-free food over at [the supermarket],” Lacy says. “I can show them the ingredient panel and say actually no, you’re missing this, this and this.”
When deciding which brands to carry, Lacy examines the overall quality of a company, such as how it processes its food and whether the food is made in a USDA-inspected facility. She seeks out products with human-grade ingredients and no byproducts, useless fillers or chemicals, and she sticks to USA-made diets whenever possible. But she also aims to go beyond just natural, especially as that word becomes increasingly ubiquitous on pet product labels.
“Back in the day, when we came up with the name Better Life Natural Pet Foods, it wasn’t as watered down,” she says. “There are a lot of things that can be called natural that are not necessarily good for you. We’re actually considering rebranding because of that term.”
Instead, Lacy focuses on upholding the Better Life portion of the company’s name by taking a holistic health approach to curating her store’s merchandise.
“Everything we carry is for the better health of your pet,” she says. “We want to make sure that there’s probiotics and enzymes, that it’s going to be something your dog or cat is going to assimilate better. We’re more about healthy, not just natural.”
As the demand for natural products has expanded, Lacy has also seen corresponding price spikes that have proven to be a challenge to her business, rather than a boon to its bottom line. Located in a county with primarily lower-income communities, Better Life has to continually demonstrate to customers that higher-quality pet foods are worth the cost.
“The price increase is incredible in this market,” Lacy says. “Our first bags were $25, now those same bags are $60. That’s been a challenge for our demographic.
Fortunately, people have started considering their pets as part of the family, so that’s helped us stay alive.”
Despite the obstacles her business faces, as well as the constant competition from big-box stores and online retailers that all pet specialty retailers contend with, Lacy is optimistic about Better Life’s future. She has diversified the company’s offerings, providing grooming services, cat boarding in luxury cat condos and DIY dog wash stations. The store also has an extensive aquatics section now, including saltwater, freshwater and pond products and services. The second Better Life location opened just over a year ago, and Lacy is already investigating opportunities to open a third store in El Paso in the near future.
As long as consumers continue to place more and more value on their pets’ well-being, Lacy sees the industry maintaining its growth trends, helping keep businesses like hers successful.
“It is a positive industry, and I see good things happening,” Lacy says. “You have to see the positive in it all the time, otherwise why be here?”
She especially sees potential for the future as more young adults adopt pets and bring their concern for their own health to caring for their dogs and cats. Her own daughter inspired her to start targeting the younger demographic in her advertising efforts and offer products to support an active lifestyle, such as hiking gear for pets.
As big-box stores move into neighborhoods with small independent retailers, becoming an integral part of local communities is key for her store and others like it, Lacy says. She has even started expanding beyond just pet merchandise to create a broader, health-focused store experience to her customers.
“I think that’s our biggest challenge, keeping it local and trying to get the word out that local business is where it’s at,” she says. “We just have to think out of the box to bring the community to us. We’re going to start carrying locally grown vegetables, we have fresh free-range eggs, and soon we’re moving into aquaponics.
“It goes with the idea of a better life with your pets. That’s what all of us little independents have to do, is figure out a new little niche.”